Tell me what you’re like, and I’ll tell you how you vote

The decisions we make have a lot to do with our personality. Deeply entrenched behavioral tendencies are not easy to shed – even when it comes to which party we prefer. Insights from political psychology.

A scorpion wanted to cross a river. Then he met a frog on the shore and asked him: “Dear frog, please take me to the other side on your back!” – “I’m not tired of life. If you sting me once we’re on the water, I’ll have to die,” the frog replied. “Why would I sting you? Then we would both go down and would both have to die,” replied the scorpion. The frog pondered a moment and said: “Yes, you’re probably right. Get on my back.” As soon as they had swum a few meters, the frog felt a piercing pain and shouted: You’ve just stung me. Now we both have to die!” The scorpion replied: “Yes, sorry about that. But I am a scorpion, and stinging is what scorpions do!”

This Persian fable reminds us that our decisions are impregnated by character. We can’t just get out of our skin, whatever the living circumstances. It is safe to assume that we will not abandon such deeply rooted behavioral tendencies even if we immerse ourselves in politics. According to personality psychology, insights into our immovable soul can be distilled from five traits (the “big five”): Openness to experiences (how receptive are you to the unknown?), conscientiousness (how meticulous are you?), extroversion (how affable are you?), compatibility (how kind and collegial are you?), and neuroticism (how sensitive and timid are you?). Personality psychologists assume that these five traits are passed on to a certain extent from generation to generation, i.e. our direct ancestors shape our preferences.

Open-minded people want to help shape things

Open-minded people are always looking for new experiences and adventures. They are also inclined to critically question existing norms and values. Open-minded people are constantly coming up with new ideas on how to furnish their homes and like to try out unfamiliar places, food and travel destinations. They take a great interest in political events and assess themselves as accordingly competent. The inherent desire to try out new ways of acting is expressed in the thirst for political co-determination and participation, whether within electoral and voting democracy or through unconventional means of protest.

Conscientious people tend to isolate themselves

If you ask yourself if you are a person with pronounced conscientiousness, then quietly evaluate your propensity for order, sense of duty, and the pursuit of conformity and the maintenance of the status quo. Conscientious people like to be at an appointment a little early, make the bed when they leave the house and don’t leave the dirty dishes lying around in the kitchen unnecessarily. With their precise and reliable actions, they are anxious to avoid the unexpected. In the eyes of conscientious people, it is imperative for exemplary citizens to take part in elections. Fear of loss of control also leads them to plead for political isolation.

People considered to be extroverts are characterized as chatty, sociable, outgoing and sometimes assertive as well as socially dominant. Extroverts approach strangers at parties and introduce themselves without being asked to do so. Even in the middle of a group, they often make no secret of their differing opinions and practice a certain master-in-the-house mentality. High scores on the extroversion scale go hand in hand with the obligation to vote. In accordance with their nature, extroverts are open to political processes, and they feel extremely comfortable when the conversation turns to politics.

People in need of harmony keep their distance from politics

Agreeable people are seen as trusting, kind-hearted, helpful and willing to compromise. They look for harmony in their relationships with others, behave indulgently and are not necessarily looking for challenges. They are reluctant to indulge in gossip and avoid arguments. They show little interest in politics in general. The confrontation of different opinions practiced there as well as the sometimes rigorous articulation and enforcement of one’s own interests hardly correspond to their character. In Switzerland, compatibility goes hand in hand with a high level of satisfaction with democracy and a great deal of trust in the Federal Council.

“We can’t just escape our personality, whatever the living circumstances.”

Markus Freitag

Neuroticism refers to the “disposition to be unduly anxious”. Neurotic persons are described as anxious and easily irritable. They have extremely nervous reactions and usually start their holidays worrying about unlocked front doors and stoves that haven’t been switched off. People who consider themselves to be neurotic or emotionally weak often feel uneasy when they are party to a discussion about politics. They also struggle to understand political issues and, perhaps for this very reason, are always dissatisfied with the state of democracy.

Looking ahead to the elections this autumn, based on previous findings of political psychology, it can be said that the conscientious and extroverts tend to favor bourgeois and conservative parties, while open, compatible and neurotic people tend to favor left-wing groups. In short: Tell me what you’re like, and I’ll tell you how you vote.

About the author

Markus Freitag

is Director and full professor at the Institute of Political Science in Bern. His most recent work deals with the “Psyche des Politischen” (Psyche of the Political) (published in German by NZZ-Libro/Schwabe, 2022). In it, he discusses what character reveals about our political thinking and actions.

Choosing to have a family

Markus Freitag’s best decision in life was to start a family. In his day-to-day life, he finds it hard to decide not to exercise and be active. There is no decision he regrets today: “Non, je ne regrette rien.”


Prof. Dr. Markus Freitag

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